Is Tolerance Enough?

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Is Tolerance Enough?

It’s often said that society needs to be more “tolerant.” But, is that really sufficient? To me, one tolerates something unpleasant, such as a crying infant in an airplane or a putrid odor while performing limb or life-saving I&D. So, is being tolerant of someone implying something negative about them? Would it be preferable to be “accepting?”

While often conflated, tolerance and acceptance are neither synonymous nor interchangeable. In a recent interview, Shashi Tharoor (a notable current Hindu politician of the Indian Congress Party) explained the difference. Giving credit to someone else, he expressed that being tolerant of someone implies, “I’m right. You’re wrong. But, I’ll allow you to remain with your wrong beliefs/ways/traditions.” In contrast, being accepting implies, “I’ll accept your beliefs/ways/traditions may be correct if you’ll accept my ways/beliefs/traditions may be correct.”

Being accepting of others may at times feel far more difficult than being tolerant. Yet, isn’t that what the founders of the world’s most prominent religions (Jesus, Mohammad and Buddha) implored their followers to do?

Twenty years ago, I bought a house in an area of Houston that just a few decades prior would not allow any minorities to own property (this included Jews and perhaps even Catholics). Then, national civil rights legislation was passed in DC, forcing Homeowners’ Associations throughout the nation to become more truly capitalistic, allowing anyone who could afford to buy property to do so. When I moved my young family into our current residence, we were not just tolerated by our new neighbors, but were very warmly accepted! Purchasing the house gave us ownership, but being accepted gave us something more – a sense of belonging.

It strikes me that America has historically been able to foster a sense of belonging amongst its many diverse immigrants, not by just tolerating them but by actually accepting them…eventually. This is in line with the message spoken by Paul Moses, the Howard Steel Lecturer at the 2019 WOA Annual Meeting.

This acceptance is a crucial feature in a successful “melting pot.”

Omer A. Ilahi, MD
[email protected]


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